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Thread: Chopin and the Large Scale Miniature

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    Chopin and the Large Scale Miniature

    One of the things I find so fascinating about the romantic movement in music is how it wasn’t just a development in one direction, or a simple extension of traditional practices. There were many changes which were triumphed in different areas by different composers, and they could often be contradicting as well as complimentary. Demonstrating this contradiction are the 24 preludes for piano by Frédéric Chopin.

    The romantic movement is often credited with the expansion to the fantastic in music. In Paris, huge display operas of Hoffmeister ruled the stage with elaborate staging effects. Co-inciding with the Nationalistic movement, many composers created grand symphonic displays taking influence from national or folk idiom, such as Sibelius and Dvorak. Liszt in his tone poems and extended keyboard works pursued ever greater variety of harmony and texture, and created extended single movement works comprising many unique developing thematic ideas.

    Chopin’s Preludes are an intriguing counter trend to this. What they are able to do, is to capture an explicit emotion is detail with a minimum of development. The average length of each prelude is about one and a half minutes. Within such a space of time, all that is really given is a depiction of an idea or feeling before the piece ends. Many have a lyrical component which rivals the human voice for flexibility of expression, and some function well as expressive ‘Songs Without Words’.

    It is interesting that in a period where Liszt was developing his technique of thematic metamorphoses, where his ideas changed and developed into different guises throughout his work creating a complex networked structure, and as Schumann was exploring the possibility of creating a superstructure in song cycles through tonal manipulation, Chopin appears disinterested in this cerebral school of composition. It is easy enough to analyse most of the preludes in terms of structure, many of them break down into two even periods, a rare few use a modified ternary or binary form. But this is completely insignificant - these are not complex forms and in my opinion require no complex discussion, just perhaps an awareness that they exist. Where these preludes really become significant is their emotional depictions, and this is done through anything but structure.

    In material, they are varied enormously. The simple longing of No. 4 in E minor is a world apart from the exuberance of No. 3 in G major. And this exuberance is expressed differently to the stormy intense activity of No. 8 in F# minor. What Chopin created was a set of 24 stand alone worlds. Occasionally tonally complex, endlessly varied, and infinitely emotional. From this, a typical romantic contradiction steps forward: these works can be less than a minute long, and contain all the emotional complexity of an hour long symphony. They are large scale in their expression, small scale in their design; a collection of large scale miniatures.

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    Rear Admiral Appassionata John Watt's Avatar
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    This is so calming, so meditative to read, and think about,
    I can only think of one thing to add, about this time period of music.
    Imagine living in a quiet world, no cars, planes, or loud machinery.
    Not even hydro wires buzzing away up in the sky.
    And then entering a symphony or opera hall, so acoustic already.

    It's funny, some times, when the playing is so intense or elaborate,
    you can get caught up in a minute of sound,
    even if you would estimate they had played for more minutes than that.
    I still gotta watch out for myself, when I'm cooking,
    looking in to another room with a music video on.

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